Sermon for Pentecost Sunday – May 26, 2024

CLICK HERE for a worship video for May 19

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday – May 19, 2024

Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Kjære venner nåde med dere og fred fra Gud vår Far og vår herre Jesus Kristus.

Og det skal skje i de siste dager, sier Gud, da vil jeg utgyde av min Ånd over alt kjød, og eders sønner og eders døtre skal tale profetiske ord, og eders unge menn skal se syner, og eders oldinger ha drømmer; ja, endog over mine træler og over mine trælkvinner vil jeg i hine dager utgyde av min Ånd, og de skal tale profetiske ord. Og jeg vil la under skje på himmelen i det høie, og tegn på jorden i det lave: blod og ild og røkskyer; solen skal bli til mørke og månen til blod, før Herrens dag kommer, den store og herlige. Og det skal skje: Hver den som påkaller Herrens navn, han skal bli frelst. Amen.

Just kidding. I’ll give it to you in English. But as I switch from badly pronounced Norwegian to English, I want you to notice something. As I speak now in what is the native language of most if not all of you, there is a sudden clarity, isn’t there? It is like a fog has lifted. It is like something that was blurry has come into sharp focus. Now the words are landing in your ears and sticking, instead of bouncing off in confusion.

For Christians, Pentecost is a celebration of the Holy Spirit, of course, but more specifically, it is a celebration of the Holy Spirit’s purpose, which is to speak to us in our native language. Today we celebrate the Holy Spirit’s job, which is to preach to us in language we can understand.

Pentecost was a Jewish celebration long before it was a Christian one. In Hebrew it was (and is) called Shavuot, and is held fifty days after Passover. It commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is also something of a first fruits festival, celebrating the wheat harvest, not unlike our celebration of Thanksgiving. Citizens of Israel will get June 12 off this year as a paid holiday to celebrate Shavuot.

Way back in the first century there were many Jews who had moved out of Israel and now lived in far-flung places. These diaspora Jews returned to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. Many of these Jews had been born and raised speaking the languages native to the places they now lived. They might know a little Greek, which was the language of business in the Mediterranean. They might have retained a little bit of Hebrew or Aramaic, probably just a few words here or there they heard from their grandparents. But mostly they spoke the languages of the lands where they now lived. These were the languages they knew best.

As the disciples were celebrating Pentecost, there was a sound like the rush of a violent wind. As the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in other languages. It is important to note that this was not some esoteric spiritual language. These were real, well-established human languages. Empowered by the Spirit, the disciples began to speak in the languages of the diaspora Jews, the now native languages of the Jews from all of these far-flung places. Amazed and astonished, the crowd said, “How can this be? Aren’t these guys all from Galilee? But we hear them speaking to us in our own language about God’s deeds of power!”

Some sneered, of course. Some thought they were drunk on new wine. But Peter stood up and said, “No, no. We aren’t drunk. It is only nine in the morning, for cryin’ out loud. No, this is what the prophet Joel said would happen. The Spirit is being poured out upon all flesh so that God’s sons and daughters would prophecy, so that they would speak God’s Word, so that they would proclaim God’s deeds of power, so that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord would be saved.”

This is what Jesus said would happen. In our gospel reading we hear Jesus promising the disciples that he would send the Spirit. Jesus makes it very clear what the Spirit would do. This Spirit would be an Advocate, or Helper. Jesus describes this Spirit as the Spirit of truth who would guide his people into all the truth. And this Spirit, Jesus says, would accomplish its job by speaking! Look at all the verbs attributed to the Spirit in our gospel reading: The Spirit would testify. The Spirit would speak. The Spirit would declare. The Spirit would preach law and gospel, both convicting of sin and taking Christ’s forgiveness and declaring it to the hearer. The Spirit would glorify Jesus – and would do so by speaking.

What happened on that Pentecost was a spectacular announcement that this promise was now being fulfilled. What happened was that the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus had come, filling the disciples with the words they needed to deliver the goods of the gospel to their neighbors. The violent wind and the tongues of fire were a sign that the church was now born, and its mission, its purpose, its job, was to be the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit, proclaiming God’s deeds of power through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ to all the world.

There is a bad habit in some corners of Christianity of separating the Holy Spirit from Jesus – who sends it, and sends it for this specific purpose. There is a bad habit among some Christians of unhitching the Spirit from its source in Christ and his Word. When this happens, a spiritual train wreck inevitably follows. When it happens, people go off the rails.

There are far-left Christians claiming that the Spirit is leading them to invent new truths, new truths which conveniently conform to the spirit of the age. There are far-right Christians in the so-called “prophetic utterance movement” who claim the Spirit has given them a revelation about who the next president should be. This untethering of the Spirit from Christ and his Word is at best a distraction from the Spirit’s actual work, and at worst actually leads people away from the gospel, destroying souls. This is all from a spirit, alright – but it isn’t the Holy Spirit!

Though the circumstances were different, Martin Luther dealt with this in his own time from a group of people he called the Enthusiasts. These were people who claimed divine revelation from the Spirit apart from the Word. Not one to mince words, Luther said such pious-sounding delusions were from the devil himself.

Jesus is clear about what the Spirit will do. His Spirit is the Spirit of truth, who guides us into all the truth. The Holy Spirit will never lead us away from the truth of scripture. The Holy Spirit will never lead us away from Christ and his Word. The Holy Spirit’s job is to take what is Christ’s and declare it to us. It is to speak words of law and gospel to us, words that convict and set free, words which declare God’s deeds of power for us through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Spirit’s job is ultimately to lead us to the truth of what Jesus has done for us to give us forgiveness, life, and salvation. And the Spirit does this in a simple, yet miraculous way: by speaking to us in our own native language, in the language we understand best.

In my previous congregation one of the members was from Germany. An American exchange student from Lewis County, Washington, lived with his family for a year, and he followed her back and married her. He spoke excellent English, but German, of course, was his native language. This was the language his mother used to sing to him. This was the language his father used to teach him to pray. One Pentecost Sunday I decided to surprise him. I practiced and practiced, and when I came to serve him communion, I said to him, “Die leib Christi, given für dich.” He looked up at me with astonishment. It hit him differently in his native tongue! After the service, he kept thanking me over and over. It meant more to him than I ever imagined it would. He heard Christ speaking to him in the language he knew best.

This is the miracle of Pentecost, and it continues to this day. God wants us to hear what he has done for us through his Son, and so, by the Spirit’s power, God speaks to us in our native language. You do not need to learn Aramaic or Hebrew or Greek to hear the gospel. The Spirit continues to work through the church to deliver the goods in the language you understand best.

For those whose native tongue is something other than English, there are congregations right here on Whidbey Island where other languages are spoken. We have been a sponsoring congregation of El Camino de Emaus, the Spanish speaking Lutheran congregation in the Skagit Valley, so that these friends can hear the gospel in the language they understand best. The Spirit is still at work through tongues, through language, through speaking, to declare God’s deeds of power to all people, so that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord would be saved.

I began by reading part of Peter’s Pentecost sermon from Acts in Norwegian, but today, in God’s great love for you, he speaks to you in the language you know best, in words that are clear. Today the Spirit speaks to you in such a way that the fog lifts and God’s saving word for you comes into sharp focus. Today the Spirit takes what is Christ’s and declares it to you. By his grace, you have his righteousness, his holiness, his relationship with God the Father, his new and eternal life. Through Jesus, you have forgiveness, life, and salvation. It is all yours through faith in him.

Today the Spirit speaks to you in such a way that the good news of what God has done for you in Jesus Christ would land in your ears and in your heart, so that you too would look up in astonishment.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for the Ascension of our Lord – May 12, 2024

CLICK HERE for a worship video for May 12

Sermon for the Ascension of our Lord (and Mother’s Day) – May 12, 2024

Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Like many of you, I’m remembering and celebrating the mothers in my life today. I’m remembering my grandmother, who sang in the choir in the congregation I grew up in. After singing she would come back to the pew and pull me into her lap and wrap her arms around me, her hands resting on my torso. Being in church with her hands holding me to herself was such a blessing. In the midst of an often-chaotic childhood, it felt like the safest place in the world. I remember my mother’s hands too. When she died, I had to work through some anger and some painful memories, but at one point my counselor pushed me to start naming the good things I remember about her. And the first thing that popped out of my mouth was the feeling of her hands on my forehead when I was sick as a kid. Nothing made me feel better than her hands on my forehead. I look at my dear wife, the mother of our three sons, and I remember how her hands could calm them down when they were little. My hands would get them riled up with wrestling and roughhousing until, without fail, one of them was crying, and then her hands would almost instantly dry their tears. I notice now how when we leave them behind after visiting them in college, her hands reach up to hold the back of their necks as she lingers in a proud, loving hug. She is blessing them, and no matter how big they get, it just melts their hearts. Even as other women are now starting to enter the picture, there is still no greater blessing than a touch from their mother’s hands.

I don’t think it is a stretch at all to find a connection in the loving, comforting, blessing hands of mothers and the Ascension of our Lord. As St. Luke tells us, after the risen Jesus had spent forty days on the earth with his disciples, he gave them some final words. He opened their minds to understand the scriptures, helping them see it all through a new lens, the lens of his death and resurrection. He gave them their mission, which was to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sin in his name and to be witnesses to all that he had done. Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them.

You might think this is a minor detail, but it isn’t. Those hands mean something. This was the very same posture the priests in the temple used to put God’s blessing on the people at the end of worship. It was the posture used to put God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s blessing on them. Jesus used this very same posture. He lifted up his hands in blessing. His hands, still bearing the wounds of his great sacrifice for them, were over them, covering them, assuring them, blessing them.

These hands of blessing are what made Jesus’ departure an occasion of great joy rather than a sad goodbye. These disciples knew that these hands would remain over them, and so they could go back to their daily lives in great joy. They could go back to Jerusalem, where so much ugliness had happened, without fear. They could spend the rest of their lives worshipping Jesus and serving him. They could spend the rest of their lives blessing God for the blessing that was upon them through those eternally outstretched hands.

And where is Jesus now? Where did he go, exactly? As St. Paul says in our epistle reading, and as we confess in the creed, Jesus is “seated at the right hand of the Father.” The Ascension of our Lord doesn’t mean Jesus shot off into outer space! No, he took his place at God’s right hand in the heavenly places.

This is symbolic language. The right hand represents power. There’s nothing wrong with being left-handed, of course, but about 90% of the human population is right-hand dominant. For most of the human population, then, the right hand is their strongest hand. It is the hand you use to get things done. The right hand is the hand you use to sign your name or crank a wrench or flip a pancake. The right hand is the hand you use to accomplish things. And so, in ancient times the right-hand symbolized power and strength. This symbolism carried over to the seating arrangements in the courts of kings. The highest-ranking official would always be seated to the king’s right as a sign of his power. This communicated to everyone that this was the person the king used to accomplish things. We use the phrase “right hand man” even today.

Jesus’ ascension is his enthronement as the eternal “right hand man” to God the Father. Jesus is taking his place as the one who has the ear of the Heavenly Father, who acts with his authority, who carries out his will. Jesus, as the “right hand man” to God the Father, is the one who will continue to get things done. He will continue to be at work. He will continue to accomplish things. That’s what the right-hand man does, right?

As God’s right-hand man, Jesus continues get things done for God the Father. He continues to lift his hands over us to comfort and to heal and to strengthen and to bless. And he does this through the church, which is our spiritual mother.

There is a long history in Christianity of describing the church as our mother. St. Cyprian, a 3rd century bishop from North Africa famously wrote: “No one can have God for his Father, who does not have the Church for his mother.” That can be jarring for American Protestants steeped in “just me and Jesus” spirituality to hear, but it is not a foreign concept for Lutheran Christians. Martin Luther himself, in no less important a writing than the Large Catechism, calls the church, “the mother that conceives and bears every Christian through God’s Word.”

The church is our mother, and it is through the church that the hands of Jesus continue to be lifted in blessing over us.  It is through our spiritual mother, the church, that Jesus continues to get things done for God, often through the literal laying on or lifting up of hands.

I remember receiving the laying on of hands when I was ordained as a pastor. I remember the blessing being put on me through those many hands laid upon me in prayer. I remember returning the favor when Lynne Ogren was ordained here, laying hands on her in prayer. Christ’s blessing is laid upon pastors through the loving, blessing hands of our mother, the church. In the scriptures we read how when Timothy was struggling in ministry, St. Paul encouraged him to remember those hands laid upon him when he was ordained, and to take courage from it, to literally be en-couraged, to be strengthened by the hands of his mother, the church. Those hands are powerful! Christ continues to get things done for God through them!

But it isn’t just for pastors. The newly baptized have hands laid upon them after they emerge from the womb of the baptismal font. Through the laying on of hands and prayer, Christ’s blessing is put upon them as mother church embraces her newborn child.

Next Sunday I will lay hands on the heads of our confirmation students as they publicly affirm their baptism. The hands of the ascended Christ will be lifted over them in blessing. They will literally feel the proud, loving blessing of Christ on their heads through the ministry of their mother, the church.

Every Christian who attends worship has Christ’s hands lifted over them when the absolution, the forgiveness of sins is Christ’s name, is spoken, and again when the benediction is proclaimed. Jesus borrows my hands to do it – but make no mistake: he is only using mine to remind you of his! His hands are lifted over you in blessing as his word is spoken. Through your mother, the church, he is putting his grace, his love, his blessing, on you. In the midst of all the chaos of the world and the chaos of your life, he is putting his hands over and around you, so that you would be held in his safe-keeping.

When we are sick, or hurting, or afraid, our mother, the church, is there with hands that bring comfort and peace. On some occasions hands are literally placed on foreheads as words of blessing are spoken.

Mothers don’t need to be perfect to be powerful conveyors of love and blessing. The same is true of Mother Church. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the church has likely had times when it has led to disappointment or pain. But even so, flawed as she is, the church is the mother through whom Christ’s hands are upon us. Through her, our ascended Lord continues to comfort and heal. He continues to encourage and assure. He continues to love and bless.

The hands of your ascended Lord continue to be lifted over you today. The ascension is not a sad goodbye, it is a reason to worship him with great joy! It doesn’t mean Jesus has left us, it means he has taken his place at God’s right hand, where he continues to bestow his blessing. Through your spiritual mother the church he holds you close, so that you would know the power of his great love for you, today and forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church


Spring Bible Study for Adults

Spring Bible Study for Adults

A new adult Bible study on First Corinthians will be offered on Sunday mornings in the library from 9:15am-10:15am, beginning April 21. Come see how Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians helps us to see every part of life through the lens of the gospel. Reading the following chapters before class is encouraged, but not required:

April 21: Community (1 Corinthians 1-4)
April 28: Sex (1 Corinthians 5-7)
May 5:   Food (1 Corinthians 8-10)
May 19:  Worship (1 Corinthians 11-14)
May 26:  Death (1 Corinthians 15)



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